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Liverpool’s Attempt to Trademark the Ancient Symbol of Liverpool Provokes Widespread Outrage in Liverpool

The Liver bird—the ineffably pompous cormorant famous for carrying a sprig of broom on the club crest of Liverpool F.C.—has been a symbol of the city of Liverpool since at least 1350, when it was first used on the town’s corporate seal. It appears on the official arms granted to the city in 1797, on the royal charter of the city council, on school badges, on the parish church, and on the twin clock-towers of the famous Liver Building, where it’s responsible for some entertaining myths. (For instance: If a female virgin or an honest man passes by the towers, the birds will flap their wings.)

So why are Liverpool F.C. trying to register the Liver bird as their trademark? The Liverpool city council, at least in its synechdochic form as deputy council leader Flo Clucas, is asking the same question after the club filed a £450 application with the UK Intellectual Property Office to register its unofficial mascot. Calling the move “outrageous,” Clucas suggested that the council would file an official objection to the club’s application in an attempt to preserve Liverpool’s public heritage.

[T]hey have no right of ownership to claim the bird, or any version of the bird, as their own.

The Liver Bird, not only does it appear on the Royal Charter for the council, but it is also used by local businesses and schools.

It belongs to the city and nobody has a right to claim it exclusively as their own. It’s a symbol for the city.

The club also says they have no intention of charging organisations that want to use it.

But there is no guarantee in future that the people of the city will have the right to use that without having to pay for it.

Liverpool have countered by saying that they’re only attempting to trademark their specific version of the Liver bird, and only to help them in their fight against counterfeit merchandise. “The Liver bird is part and parcel of the city, we are not remotely going anywhere near that,” a club spokesman said.

The general tone in the media toward the club’s attempt is, understandably, one of mockery and outrage, particularly when it comes to any mention of the club’s American owners (whose involvement in the trademark application isn’t clear). But to me, this is a more difficult case and one that nicely demonstrates the moral complexities of intellectual property. If Converse can trademark its version of the five-pointed star shape without trademarking the star shape itself, why shouldn’t Liverpool F.C. be able to trademark its specific representation of the Liver bird without trademarking the Liver bird itself? After all, the star shape is far more common and far more generic, and Liverpool have a legitimate interest in protecting their logo from counterfeiters.

On the other hand, they’ve already trademarked the logo itself, as well as the phrases “You’ll Never Walk Alone” and “This Is Anfield”. Trying to do the same to a centuries-old civic symbol is painfully graceless and does suggest an encroachment against the public domain. Clucas may sound vaguely paranoid when she worries about the club charging citizens for the use of the bird in the future, but I kind of think she’s right. If Premier League clubs were known for staying within their bounds and protecting the interests of their communities, the Premier League wouldn’t exist.

Legal scholars, at least the sort that speak to the Daily Mirror, seem to be of the opinion that any protest filed by the town council will probably be enough to scuttle the club’s application. If that’s the case, wouldn’t it be best for everyone, including the club, if they withdrew the application on their own? That way they’d save some face, the council would save its symbol, and intellectual property law would be saved a minor headache.

It would be the right thing for the club to do. But I have a feeling that the Liver bird will flap its wings before it happens.

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Liverpool’s Attempt to Trademark the Ancient Symbol of Liverpool Provokes Widespread Outrage in Liverpool

by Brian Phillips · November 19, 2008

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